Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s latest novel captures the emotional complexity of family life. All this, against the background of a very impoverished childhood. It all starts off in a very simple manner. “There was a time, and it was many years ago now, where I had to stay in hospital for almost nine weeks” begins the novel. The narrator, Lucy, is forced to recuperate in hospital. It starts off seeming like a simple story. But, it delves right into the complex web of human emotions and how the past impacts the future.
Lucy’s stay would have been uneventful, but for an unexpected visitor- her mother. The book captures a rare wealth of emotions through their conversations. The mother and daughter have not seen or met each other in many years. It is a visit that forces Lucy to go back to her past- to her childhood. Her mother begins to tell her stories, exchanging gentle gossip from her childhood in Amgash, Illinois. This seems to reconnect them. They are not emotionally expressive. They seem unnaturally restrained with each other. Yet, her mother’s presence brings a powerful joy that seems to illuminate the pages.
Narrating events and news about their past, immediately brings back to Lucy’s mind the poverty-ridden childhood where the family lived akin to outcasts in a rich relative’s garage. There are some touching images, like for instance, an acquaintance who observed Lucy and other children grabbing a bite from something thrown in the dump.
It is through these reflections that Strout brings out the indelible impact of childhood on a person’s life. In this case it was a deprived one. But, it invisibly guided the course of Lucy’s life, impacting her decisions and her future.
Lucy’s current life is a far throw from her childhood. She is a mother to two girls. She lives in New York with her husband and children and is a struggling writer. As she confronts her past, her future seems to crumble. She faces the realities of her marriage and career as a writer. Her reflections on her past are interspersed with the direction that her life takes in the future.
The book is a short, simple and lucid read. My Name is Lucy Barton draws us gently into the complex weave of emotions, bringing out ties that bind a family together, especially a mother and a daughter. Like a true maestro, Strout plays with form in this narrative. There are different ways of telling a story. She chooses to narrate the tale in a simple, straightforward but sublimely touching manner!
Penguin Random House, 2016